Headline — 09 January 2015 — by Kareem Clarke
Cañeros swimming in “shark-infested” waters?

BELIZE CITY–A thorny resolution that was passed at a meeting of the Belize Sugar Cane Farmers Association (BSCFA)’s general membership meeting this past Sunday in which cash-strapped cañeros voted to share out an additional $4 million of the association’s funds among themselves, threatens to have dire implications not only for the stability of the BSCFA itself, but also on its tremulous relationship with the Fairtrade organization, through which the farmers acquire substantial financial benefits, mainly in the way of Fairtrade premium prices for their product.

The decision, which was made in the face of a cash flow crisis resulting from the currently delayed 2014/2015 sugarcane crop season, is intended to provide roughly 5,300 cañeros with about $754 each after the funds are equally divided, and while the disbursement may be for a worthy cause, officials of the BSCFA have expressed great concern over the move at a meeting at their Orange Walk office today, since the association will likely be decertified or suspended for non-compliance with Fairtrade standards, and worse, we understand that it could even mean the collapse of the BSCFA.

During that meeting, the BSCFA Senior Accountant/Acting CEO, Zune Canche, informed the 18 directors that there is only $1.5 million available in the association’s accounts which is not Fairtrade money, and the directors were tasked with trying to convince their branch members to accept that amount, instead of dipping into the Fairtrade funds again.

The concerns stem from the fact that $2.5 million in Fairtrade money was already distributed after a similar resolution was passed at a general assembly before the Christmas holidays, and although the claim is that the money is to assist with the hardships that the cañeros currently find themselves in, Fairtrade’s strict regulations do not permit that type of wanton spending, since the funds are there for specific purposes relating to the betterment of the industry itself, and not for mere “hard-time” handouts.

Still, the general membership pushed ahead with their demand that the full $4 million be distributed, and today, after an appearance on the KREM WUB Morning Vibes Show, Alfredo Ortega, Chairman of the BSCFA’s Orange Walk Branch, told us what the ramifications could be.

He said, “Definitely there will be a negative impact into this situation. The chairman called a meeting on Monday [January 5] especially to deal with this situation in regards to the $4 million, and that is where we learned that there is only $1.5 million available that can be used without harming or reducing the risk in regards to the use for the different [Fairtrade] projects. Almost all 18 branch chairman agreed that they will be going back to their membership at branch level to explain to the members the situation as is, and what is available to be used.

“If the farmers accept that, then the association would have distributed the $1.5 million, but that didn’t happen. I heard afterwards from some branch chairmen that farmers have approached them, and they don’t want to listen to anything, they want the $4 million to be distributed. That will clearly divert from what the 18 branch chairmen had agreed upon, and clearly, yes, the general assembly had approved the $4 million, but I think in any case, we need to look forward to what can be done, and what should not be done.

“If at the far end, the farmers just don’t want to listen, well, they also need to know that they need to hold responsibility also when ‘push comes to shove,’ that we get suspended or we get de-certificated, and also that they need to take into consideration that the projects that could have happened will no longer happen because there is no fund for it to happen.”

As Ortega mentioned, all the BSCFA projects will be halted forthwith upon the disbursement of the $4 million, which is likely to cause some services to be interrupted, while BSCFA support staff may be cut, or laid off altogether.

Nevertheless, preparations have started for the checks to be written, and Ortega said that they will take into consideration a suggestion by a caller to the KREM WUB show this morning who advised the association to create a fund for Belizeans to contribute to, to assist the cañeros in their present plight.

Due to the urgency of the situation, the association has contacted Flo-Cert, an arm of Fairtrade, for advice in the matter, and we understand that officials from Flo-Cert have recommended that the disbursement should not proceed due to serious implications with Fairtrade practices.

That is primarily because the decision was not taken following proper Fairtrade procedures, and therefore, late this evening Fairtrade wrote to the association advising against the move and requesting the BSCFA to at least ensure that the cañeros are fully aware of the consequences of such an undertaking.

We were told that a Fairtrade representative wrote Ezequiel Cansino, Chairman of the BSCFA’s Committee of Management, instructing him that the use of the $4 million in such a manner would signal a financial crisis for the cane farmers.

In addressing the possible decertification by Fairtrade, the representative stated, “While I understand that these are difficult times, I am concerned that in changing the premium plan approved at the Ordinary General Assembly, the association may have entered into major non-compliance. Moreover, I do not see how the association can remain compliant with Fairtrade standards with no funds to pay for staff to guide and support farmers, and no funds for projects to provide an incentive to farmers to remain compliant with Fairtrade standards.”

The official went on to point out that she is concerned that this decision “effectively signals the departure of BSCFA from the Fairtrade movement, and all the benefits that have been received in the past and can be received in the future.”

Our reports are that the association has decided to follow through with at least one project which has to do with child labor, since there is already a contract with Fairtrade for that particular pilot project, which should be carried out in the Guinea Grass and San Victor branches, and the hope is that the association has enough funds remaining to finance this initiative.

So, at the end of the day, the decision is that the farmers will be receiving their monies, albeit under quite risky circumstances, but not all branches will be able to receive their checks, which are scheduled to be given out this Friday, January 9, due to some delays in paperwork involved in clearing the money allocated to other projects.

The association has also called another meeting with directors for Friday to decide the way forward.

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